Is East End renewal really ‘Black removal?’

Penn Plaza Apartments

When the lower Hill was demolished to make way for a new urban center—but resulted in only the Civic Arena being built—thousands of Black residents were displaced. Not long afterwards, the city tried to turn East Liberty into an outdoor mall by creating Penn Circle, and destroyed what used to be called “little downtown.”

Now, redevelopment is sweeping Pittsburgh’s East End, and private property owners who lived through the severe downturn of the last 40 years are seeking a return on their investments, either by selling to developers or by redeveloping properties themselves. But for renters, the 1960s axiom that “urban renewal means Negro removal” appears to be in play.

The most visible example of this was highlighted two weeks ago when the owners of the Penn Plaza Apartments told remaining residents they had 90 days to leave because the property would be redeveloped. City, county and state political leaders convinced the Gumberg family, which owns the 7-acre property, to delay the eviction 60 days.

But even if the owners modify their mixed-use, office, retail and residential redevelopment plan to include apartments for working class families, that will not entirely address the issue of re-gentrification in East Liberty because those who are not moved out by demolition can still be moved out by price.

Much of the current development in East Liberty involves either vacant former office buildings or brand new construction. Walnut Capital’s Bakery Square 2.0 project is continuing and will eventually result in a total of 350 apartments and more than 450,000 square feet of office space.

Likewise, Mosites is building 360 apartments in three buildings in the East Liberty core.

Neither of these projects is directly displacing existing residents, but with new two-bedroom units in East Liberty averaging $1,200, middle- and lower-income working people will not be able to stay in the neighborhood. A two-bedroom at Penn Plaza rents for $850.

To a certain extent, the same thing is happening with Public Housing. The tower high rises that once dominated the East Liberty skyline are gone, replaced by lower-density, mixed income communities. And though a certain number of these units are required, and subsidized, for low-income residents, the remaining units are for rent at the market rate. Fewer affordable units means hundreds of people have left the community and the city for places like Wilkinsburg, Penn Hills, and communities further down the Mon Valley like Clairton and McKeesport.

Community Empowerment Association President and CEO Rashad Byrdsong said none of this is new, and it isn’t confined to East Liberty.

“It’s all over the East End, Bloomfield, Garfield and pretty soon Larimer and Homewood,” he said. “People who are trying to make ends meet, can’t. Can they afford the rent at Bakery Square? No. We’re seeing poor people being removed for development.”

Kendall Pelling, director of land recycling for East Liberty Development Inc., called Penn Plaza a disaster.

“The 312 units in Penn Plaza represents almost 10 percent of the 3,341 total rentable units in East Liberty—so if it goes it’s a disaster,” he said.  “Currently, 26 percent of those units are long-term affordable units, meaning they’re subsidized. So even as the market improves, those will be maintained. Another 13 percent are Section 8 vouchers in private market rentals. The private owners are the issue. The city needs to look at a strategy to preserve more affordable housing.”

A meeting was scheduled July 28 to discuss development on the Mellon Orchard site—where the detectives building used to be.

“We’ll be meeting on what should go there—best interests of the neighborhood, its wants and needs,” said Pelling. “We’re pushing to make affordable housing a component of that development.”

State Rep. Ed Gainey, D-East Liberty was more succinct.

“We’ve built high-end housing for Google, we built some affordable replacement housing and nothing in the middle,” he said. “We have enough land in Belmar, Lincoln-Lemington and Homewood to build quite a lot. The Larimer School project could be a catalyst—and it’s still close to East Liberty.

“The bottom line is those people in Penn Plaza need some housing to go to, and I’m not talking about out in Never-Never Land.”

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